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Netflix’s “House of Cards” gets first major Emmy nominations for online-only show

Netflix’s House of Cards just became the first online-only program to be nominated for top Emmy awards. Six years ago, it wouldn’t even have been eligible.

The show was nominated for best drama, and two of its stars, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, were nominated for best actor and best actress in a drama. It’s the first time those categories have ever featured a program distributed entirely over the internet. Netflix released House of Cards on February 1 to subscribers of its streaming video service; the show hasn’t aired on broadcast TV.

The Primetime Emmys are the premier awards show in American television, and its ever-changing eligibility rules have generally reflected broad shifts in home entertainment. It wasn’t until 1988 that the Emmys welcomed entries from cable TV networks, which now typically dominate the nominations and awards.

The first Internet Emmy was awarded in 2006 during the less-regarded Daytime Emmys, honoring shows developed for “computers, mobile phones, iPods, PDAs, and similar devices.” And in 2008, the Emmys finally allowed programs distributed over the internet to enter the same categories as other TV shows.

Netflix and other internet video companies, like Amazon and Hulu, are investing heavily in original programming as an enticement for subscribers. That’s similar to how Time Warner’s HBO evolved from a movie channel into an outlet for high-quality series that, not incidentally, are usually big victors at the Emmys.

House of Cards received nine Emmy nominations overall. Two other Netflix shows, Arrested Development and Hemlock Grove, received a handful of nominations in less coveted categories.

Netflix paid a reported $100 million for two seasons of House of Cards. The company has, by some estimates, already recouped that outlay in new subscribers, but the glow of an Emmy nomination could prove even more valuable. Netflix, which reports quarterly earnings on Monday, has been brandishing its image as a worthy competitor to traditional TV. Investors seem convinced: The company’s stock is up 175% since the beginning of the year.

In its convention-breaking fashion, Netflix released all 13 episodes of the first season of House of Cards at the same time, letting viewers consume the show at their own pace and rendering it something closer to a 13-hour movie than an episodic television series. (A show must have at least six episodes in a season to qualify for a best series Emmy.)  Though most television series are doled out in once-a-week episodes, the best ones are increasingly styled as epic novels.

The question of what constitutes “TV” is only further complicated by the fact that Netflix shows are watched on a wide variety of devices, from smartphones and tablets to laptops and large television sets. So, too, are many broadcast TV shows. That has implications for whether consumers will come to see Netflix and other streaming video services as supplements to cable television or worthy alternatives.

There are limits to how far Netflix can push the boundaries of the television industry, though. Now that House of Cards has been nominated for an Emmy, the official rules (pdf) dictate that Netflix will have to submit DVDs of the streaming video series for the next round of judging.

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